KEMPTVILLE - There are some exciting opportunities for crop producers in Ontario, because a new company is developing industrial hemp, buckwheat for export market and gluten free oats, along with other crops.
ValleyBio has conducted nitrogen yield optimization trials with the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association. It also has done planting date fertility growth regulator trials at Kemptville Campus, University of Guelph.
At a seminar at the Eastern Ontario Crop Conference here on Feb. 23, ValleyBio president Reuben Stone outlined their work on pedigreed hemp seed and its genetics right up to the final stage of food processing, performed out west.
According to a company profile, ValleyBio Ltd. in Cobden is "eastern Canada’s largest contractor of food grade hemp, a product which lets growers put four times as many dollars in a grain bin over corn, 2.5 times as many dollars shipped on a B-train truck over IP Soys. Put the combine back to work between cereal and soy harvest with no timing conflict."
Stone told listeners that hemp is Cannabis Sativa, the same plant as marijuana, but it has the THC bred out of it. "It’s the puppy dog variety," he says.
The plant is bred for its food quality and high protein levels, similar to those found in dairy milk and it is rich in Omega fatty acids, amounting to as much as 200 liters of pure fatty acids from an acre of crop.
"We’re breeding below .03 per cent actually in the plant - that’s in the flower. In the food product there’s less than 10 ppm.
There is more arsenic in a bottle of wine and more mercury in your town water," he states.
Canada is currently the world leader in hemp production and if anything happened to the main crop out west, the industry would be in trouble, Stone says. For this reason Manitoba Harvest, the company that takes ValleyBio products for processing has a strategy of diversifying over into Ontario.
Research by ValleyBio shows hemp has a long illustrious history, starting with the development of agriculture 10,000 years ago. It was one of the first crops Europeans brought to North America. It was also once legal tender for taxes in the U.S.A and helped the Allies win both World Wars, with 300,000 acres grown in 1943.
The Canadian hemp industry was renewed in 1998, when it was permitted under conditions of the Controlled Substances Act. Production is growing about 50 per cent annually and it is forecast to reach over 100,000 acres by 2014.
It is a very large part of Stone’s own crop and he hopes to have 10,000 acres contracted for hemp by 2014.
Stone says when hemp came to Ontario 14-15 years ago, it was intended to be a fiber crop, but they "missed the step that the food value is very high. They caught on to that out west first and now they’re trying to bring it to Ontario."
The germ plasm for hemp came from the old Soviet countries of Romania and the U.S.S.R. where they were never "on probation" as in Canada, Stone states. "They continued to use hemp as their fiber stock through all those years."
Stone’s varieties include Anka, a dual-purpose grain fiber which was first developed in Ontario for Ontario and has a long season. It is now exempt from THC testing in the field.
This year, ValleyBio will introduce a new variety, Jutta which is suitable for Ontario and Quebec, with a little better yield than Anka. It is slightly shorter in the field and more uniform. Allysa is similar to Anka but has a shorter season, thus is suited to Northern Ontario. Stone says it is one of the varieties that the industry was built on out west.
Stone uses "hermaphrodite" plants, because of the uniformity of ripening and because there are fewer issues with equipment than with the male plant.
Fiber type plants will grow up to 12 feet high and are too tall for most combines while the grain types grow to three to six feet tall and are not good quality fiber.
So ValleyBio focuses on growing dual-purpose varieties that average seven to eight feet. In this way, they can take advantage of the current demand for hemp as a food source. If in future, a market develops for fiber, the company will be ready for it.
He says ValleyBio didn’t get a license from Health Canada to plant until June 1 and "we still got a very respectable crop."
Stone recommends holding off on planting too soon and early nitrogen application, say May 1, "or it will fuel everything right off the get go. Hemp doesn’t put any effort into producing seed until it hits the summer solstice and then it will start to flower and it cuts off energy to the top growth and starts producing grain. So if we plant May 1, we just get taller plants."
On one plot with a clay loam soil, as much as 200 lb. of nitrogen per acre made hemp grow a foot taller and much greener.
With this trial the fertility was just nitrogen, with no effort yet to figure out micronutrients. "We’re still trying to figure out the basics for hemp and the top yield was nine tonnes an acre at 150 lb."
While ValleyBio looks for lighter soils, hemp has been grown on heavy soils with good success. In seed production, heavy soils limit the root development and the crop stays shorter and easier to manage, Stone says.
He adds weed control should be done preplanting with Round Up burn down ahead of time. Right now there is no registered product for weed control in hemp. Assure is registered for grass control on fiber hemp and trials have been done with Pardner for broad leaf control.
Stone says Lance is undergoing trials in southern Ontario at one of the research centers for fungicide control. But right now fungicide is not an issue.
Plant density is about 80 to 110 plants per sq. meter but that number is coming down. Also ValleyBio is getting varieties that are more "monofolial", meaning a single stem comes up with no branching. This is easier on the combine because the head of the plant goes in flat.
All in all, "hemp is a low maintenance crop that is not subject to insect or wildlife damage. It is rare to require herbicide and pesticide products, with a good start and adequate fertility it manages weeds on its own. It is a good break crop to disturb life cycles of pathogens and pests in the soil."
Also, it has lower nutrient requirements and better drought tolerance than corn. With a grain only harvest hemp removes little nutrient from soil and retains large amounts of residue. A good stand will leave a field clean and ready for fall seeded cereal or cover crop.
ValleyBio’s production contract is for commercial grain production and the company is also interested in pedigreed seed growers for multiplication of seed.
Growers must fill out applications to Health Canada with basic information about identities, locations and destinations of the crop. Fields should be marked and if land is rented, permission obtained from landowners along with a criminal record check.
Stone "highly recommends growers mark their own field and for our growers we call it into the police station anyway."
ValleyBio plans another field day with a combine clinic in August featuring a price giveaway to attendees. Growers who commited to a production contract of 25 acres before the Ottawa Valley Farm Show ended March 15 were eligible for two tickets to the March 24 game between the Senators and the Pittsburgh Penguins in Ottawa.